Cambodia’s Democratic Transition Has Collapsed, With Dangerous Consequences
Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016
As Cambodia prepares for national elections in two years, its politics have veered dangerously out of control. Even though young Cambodians are demanding political alternatives and accessing more information outside of state media, the country’s transition toward two-party politics has collapsed. The government’s brutal tactics of the 1990s and early 2000s, when political activists were routinely murdered and opposition parties nearly put out of business, have returned. Young Cambodians may be left with no outlet for their grievances, creating a potentially explosive situation, especially given the promise of reform and dialogue just a few years ago.
In 2013, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), an alliance of opposition groups, came together in time for general elections and nearly defeated the Cambodian People’s Party, whose dominance stretches back to the end of the Khmer Rouge era in 1979. Cambodia seemed poised for a transition to a freer, more democratic system. What went wrong?
Three years ago, the CPP’s leader, longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen—the longest-serving non-royal ruler in East Asia—appeared to have miscalculated the depth of younger Cambodians’ dislike for him, and the level of support for the CNRP. Although it lacked the grassroots organization of the CPP, the dominance of Cambodian media, and the ability to twist arms and control institutions like village chiefs, the election commission and judges, the CNRP nearly won enough seats to take control of parliament. Some Cambodian political analysts even believe the opposition would have won the election if not for electoral fraud. Cambodians under 35 years old, who have no actual memory of the Khmer Rouge era—and thus were less willing to support Hun Sen simply because he provides a kind of rough stability after decades of civil war—voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.
The normally tough, even authoritarian Hun Sen became unusually contrite and accommodating with the opposition, at least for a time. The CPP and CNRP ultimately made a deal that was supposed to reform the election commission, make the 2018 elections the fairest in the country’s modern history, and foster a culture of dialogue and cooperation in parliament. And in 2014 and early 2015, the deal seemed to briefly hold up. Some opposition supporters privately told me that Hun Sen would not stand for election at the head of his party in the 2018 elections, even though he will be only 65 years old then; they were convinced that in 2018, the CNRP would ride the youth vote and Hun Sen’s seeming weakness to victory.
Some apparently believed that Hun Sen and his family had made so much money since 1979 that they would be willing to step aside from politics. Although the prime minister technically only earns around $14,000 per year, a new report by Global Witness, a longtime monitor of Cambodian politics, suggests that Hun Sen and his family have created a network of companies worth at least $200 million and as much as $1 billion. Hun Sen has denied earning any income besides his official salary.
Hun Sen is the wiliest, toughest political survivor in the region. But time is not on his side.
Other CNRP leaders simply seemed to accept that the prime minister had changed, that he really believed in allowing for freer discussion and opposition politics. This was an optimistic, and seriously naïve view. Sam Rainsy, one of the two leaders of the CNRP, celebrated Cambodian New Year’s with Hun Sen in April 2015, and appeared notably chummy with the prime minister in public.
But Hun Sen is the wiliest, toughest political survivor in the region. In 1993, after the first election in the post-civil war era resulted in a popular vote victory for the royalist FUNCINPEC party, Hun Sen used the CPP’s grassroots strength, its links to the military, and his own tough negotiating to force FUNCINPEC into a coalition government with him, in what was essentially a pseudo-coup. In the late 2000s, Hun Sen’s government pursued defamation charges against Rainsy, leading him to flee the country for four years. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, civil society leaders, journalists and members of a party Rainsy headed were murdered and their cases rarely solved. When opposition parties were thoroughly neutered, Hun Sen would try to co-opt them, by offering their leaders a few seats in parliament or a few ministries that could be used for pork.
Now Hun Sen appears to be using the same brutal strategy again. Over the past year, the CPP has tried to throttle the CNRP, while journalists and civil society activists have increasingly been beaten and killed. Rainsy is back in exile, facing defamation charges if he returns to the country, though, strangely, he remains less critical of Hun Sen than many other opposition leaders are. The other CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, has been holed up in his offices for months; if he leaves, he faces arrest on charges related to an alleged extramarital affair.
Last month, prominent political analyst Kem Ley was murdered in broad daylight. Although a man was quickly charged in the killing, many Cambodian news outlets question whether the suspect was really responsible. Kem Ley’s family has fled the country.
Earlier this month, Hun Sen sued two opposition lawmakers for defamation after they suggested his administration might have had a link to Kem Ley’s murder. Other civil society activists now report that they are increasingly receiving threats of murder and assault. Hun Sen has not been shy about warning Cambodians what could happen to those who criticize him and reminding them who controls the levers of power.
Will this new crackdown work? Unlike in the 1990s, or even the late 2000s, Cambodia’s opposition politicians and civil society have more ways to deliver their message to the public and spread criticism about the regime. Social media was crucial to the CNRP’s political outreach in 2013, and despite the government’s control of most broadcast media and repression of many critics, Cambodia’s internet is much freer than that of neighboring nations like Laos, Vietnam or even Thailand. Social media has played a central role in exposing the impunity of Hun Sen’s network of allies in business, the military and other realms. Last year, Cambodian real estate tycoon Sok Bun, who had been given an honorary title by the government after donating some $100,000 to the regime, was charged with assaulting a woman after a social media campaign spread photos of the incident.
Time is not on Hun Sen’s side. Polls of Cambodians taken by the International Republican Institute’s Phnom Penh office show that a majority of people strongly support democratic reforms and greater freedoms of expression and speech—opinions that could clearly favor the CNRP.
But Hun Sen’s government still controls all the most important political institutions. Despite promises to the opposition to clean up the election commission, it appears unlikely that it will be any less partisan in 2018 than it was in 2013. Hun Sen and the CPP dominate the judiciary. In the past, Cambodia’s king might have played a role as a moral leader and potential critic of the government, but the current monarch, Norodom Sihamoni, is much more reliant on Hun Sen than his predecessor, long-ruling Norodom Sihinaouk. Hun Sen’s office is even said to control the king’s schedule.
The military, which is even more supportive of Hun Sen and the CPP than it was in the 1990s, will back the prime minister, making a coup or other intervention highly unlikely. With the CNRP in disarray, young Cambodians have little outlet for their anger and little to look forward to in 2018.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming “A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.”